How to De-Sag the Middle

      From Loretta:
      
      Some while ago, in the comments to somebody’s post (those of you still in firm possession of your long and short-term memory might recall, but I am not, and don’t), the question of sagging middles came up.  Regarding plots, not human waistlines–a topic too deeply tragic for me to attempt.
      
      Plot issues I can deal with…to an extent.  But as you read this–if you continue to read it–please bear in mind that I speak only for myself.  Every writer has his or her own approach, or maybe several approaches.
      
      A while back I talked about Dickens.  One of the many amazing things about his writing is the plotting.  As he swiftly matured as a writer, his plotting grew as complex and elegant as a spider’s web.  It is amazing enough that he could manage all those threads and the hundreds of characters–but to realize he did this in monthly installments makes me dizzy.
      
      Though I know he didn’t simply sit down and start writing–sailing “into the mist” as some writers do–but had a fairly complex concept of the book as a whole, I cannot at the moment put my hand on anything proving that he wrote a detailed outline, in advance, of the whole book.  Yet he did plan ahead and keep track of things as he went along.  Most of my editions of his works offer appendices containing his plan for each month’s installment and careful notes about what happens to whom and when and why.  Even so, it’s amazing how he could keep track of everything, let alone weave all the parts together.
      
      He–like so many of those authors of the great sprawling novels of the 19thC–has no sagging middles.  (Note:  Those who find 19th C English novels slow and boring will agree, for to them the whole book sags.) I think this has not simply to do with plotting and planning but with the variety and individuality of the characters, the author’s understanding of those characters, and his or her ability to keep them true to themselves.
      
      My stories are absurdly simple things by comparison:  a handful of characters, with the focus almost unrelentingly on hero and heroine, and maybe one subplot.
      
      I wrote my first three books with no outline.  Contract negotiations required me to produce one for the fourth.  After that, there was no turning back.  It was, I found, much easier to write a book when I had some clue in advance what was going to happen.
      
      Some of my outlines are more detailed than others, depending on how many details my imagination can produce so early in the game, before I’ve spent enough time with the characters to understand them.  Nonetheless, the beginning, middle, and end is in the outline.  The major turning points of the story are there.  And the resolution is there.  It’s my security blanket.
      
      Most of the time, the little turning points aren’t there.  Most of the time, my outline’s notions of how the characters will react to this or that bears no resemblance to how they actually do react once I’m writing the story.  This is fine, because in a great many cases–not always, but in the majority–my original view of the characters tends to be vague, flat, and even clichéd.  They’re like little stick figures.  As I get to know them, and hear their voices, they get little faces and bodies and expressions and gestures and quirks and prejudices, etc.  They become three-dimensional, in other words.
      
      What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.  I may know they’re headed for one of those major turning points, but I can’t drag them along my route, no matter how brilliant it appeared when I planned it, unless it suits their natures.  And it may even turn out that the major turning point is going to be something altogether different.  OK, fine.  For one thing, this guarantees that I won’t get bored.  For another, as long as they’re true to themselves, I think they’ll take care of the plot, and keep the middle as taut as the beginning and end.
      
      This is not the only answer to sagging middles.
      
      One could, of course, put all the smoochy scenes there.
      

36 thoughts on “How to De-Sag the Middle”

  1. Hi Loretta:
    Thank you for your most excellent post. You can blame Sherrie and me for the ‘sagging middle.’ 🙂 She brought it up and I asked the question.
    I’ve read your post trough twice, now, with a few hours of thought in-between. Are you saying character depth, more than plot, is what keeps a middle from sagging? What about conflict? Not just the big picture ‘character against the world’ piece but the gut wrenching, agonizing internal struggle that comes with living through change. Where does this play? For me, that’s why I turn the page. More often than not, I have the plot pretty well figured out by page 100. I am rarely surprised. The only thing that keeps me snuggled between a book’s covers is watching the author artfully walk characters through the change w/o pulling any punches. Or is this what you mean when you refer to character depth?
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling who’s walking back up the learning curve, again.

    Reply
  2. Hi Loretta:
    Thank you for your most excellent post. You can blame Sherrie and me for the ‘sagging middle.’ 🙂 She brought it up and I asked the question.
    I’ve read your post trough twice, now, with a few hours of thought in-between. Are you saying character depth, more than plot, is what keeps a middle from sagging? What about conflict? Not just the big picture ‘character against the world’ piece but the gut wrenching, agonizing internal struggle that comes with living through change. Where does this play? For me, that’s why I turn the page. More often than not, I have the plot pretty well figured out by page 100. I am rarely surprised. The only thing that keeps me snuggled between a book’s covers is watching the author artfully walk characters through the change w/o pulling any punches. Or is this what you mean when you refer to character depth?
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling who’s walking back up the learning curve, again.

    Reply
  3. Hi Loretta:
    Thank you for your most excellent post. You can blame Sherrie and me for the ‘sagging middle.’ 🙂 She brought it up and I asked the question.
    I’ve read your post trough twice, now, with a few hours of thought in-between. Are you saying character depth, more than plot, is what keeps a middle from sagging? What about conflict? Not just the big picture ‘character against the world’ piece but the gut wrenching, agonizing internal struggle that comes with living through change. Where does this play? For me, that’s why I turn the page. More often than not, I have the plot pretty well figured out by page 100. I am rarely surprised. The only thing that keeps me snuggled between a book’s covers is watching the author artfully walk characters through the change w/o pulling any punches. Or is this what you mean when you refer to character depth?
    Nina
    — the littlest wenchling who’s walking back up the learning curve, again.

    Reply
  4. great post, Loretta! Far more analytical than anything I could come up with. It’s taken me years to figure out how to do enough of a summary to keep me from flying into the mist and crashing into the mountain. I think my current result is similar to yours–know the EMOTIONAL turning points. In romance, the middle has to have some dramatic emotional confrontation/realization/impact/ or all of the above plus more. But how you do it can remain pretty much up there in the mist until you get to it. Nina, the more you know your characters, the more emotional impact those turning points take.
    Of course, I prefer one of those turning points about every hundred pages, so the middle holds up like a tent.

    Reply
  5. great post, Loretta! Far more analytical than anything I could come up with. It’s taken me years to figure out how to do enough of a summary to keep me from flying into the mist and crashing into the mountain. I think my current result is similar to yours–know the EMOTIONAL turning points. In romance, the middle has to have some dramatic emotional confrontation/realization/impact/ or all of the above plus more. But how you do it can remain pretty much up there in the mist until you get to it. Nina, the more you know your characters, the more emotional impact those turning points take.
    Of course, I prefer one of those turning points about every hundred pages, so the middle holds up like a tent.

    Reply
  6. great post, Loretta! Far more analytical than anything I could come up with. It’s taken me years to figure out how to do enough of a summary to keep me from flying into the mist and crashing into the mountain. I think my current result is similar to yours–know the EMOTIONAL turning points. In romance, the middle has to have some dramatic emotional confrontation/realization/impact/ or all of the above plus more. But how you do it can remain pretty much up there in the mist until you get to it. Nina, the more you know your characters, the more emotional impact those turning points take.
    Of course, I prefer one of those turning points about every hundred pages, so the middle holds up like a tent.

    Reply
  7. Pat, it’s funny, because I never feel I’m very good at analyzing my own process. But it did dawn on me that the thing that keeps me grounded, and the narrative moving forward, is looking down the road and seeing the EMOTIONAL turning point the character is headed for. Littlest Wenchling, I’m not sure I understand your question. In a romance there’s conflict from the get-go, between hero and heroine–and usually between them and others in their world. What I’m saying is, if you try to make characters act in a way that’s inconsistent with their nature, things fall apart. Then you may have conflicts, and they may even be wrenching ones, but they’re false. And that falseness is a weak link that makes the story break down.

    Reply
  8. Pat, it’s funny, because I never feel I’m very good at analyzing my own process. But it did dawn on me that the thing that keeps me grounded, and the narrative moving forward, is looking down the road and seeing the EMOTIONAL turning point the character is headed for. Littlest Wenchling, I’m not sure I understand your question. In a romance there’s conflict from the get-go, between hero and heroine–and usually between them and others in their world. What I’m saying is, if you try to make characters act in a way that’s inconsistent with their nature, things fall apart. Then you may have conflicts, and they may even be wrenching ones, but they’re false. And that falseness is a weak link that makes the story break down.

    Reply
  9. Pat, it’s funny, because I never feel I’m very good at analyzing my own process. But it did dawn on me that the thing that keeps me grounded, and the narrative moving forward, is looking down the road and seeing the EMOTIONAL turning point the character is headed for. Littlest Wenchling, I’m not sure I understand your question. In a romance there’s conflict from the get-go, between hero and heroine–and usually between them and others in their world. What I’m saying is, if you try to make characters act in a way that’s inconsistent with their nature, things fall apart. Then you may have conflicts, and they may even be wrenching ones, but they’re false. And that falseness is a weak link that makes the story break down.

    Reply
  10. “…if you try to make characters act in a way that’s inconsistent with their nature, things fall apart.”
    Hello Loretta:
    Thank you for your second post. I am sorry for not being more clear.
    You did, however, answer my question and I agree. There’s nothing that will make me snap a book closed faster than a character which defies the natural progression of emotional intelligence. I think this is why I have come to like the romance genera. It is so rich with emotional intelligence. The writers (the good ones, anyway) must dig deep to tell the story, one which is as old as time and yet newly born with each day’s rising sun. And there’s no faking it.
    Nina, finding herself blessed once again by the WW’s blog.

    Reply
  11. “…if you try to make characters act in a way that’s inconsistent with their nature, things fall apart.”
    Hello Loretta:
    Thank you for your second post. I am sorry for not being more clear.
    You did, however, answer my question and I agree. There’s nothing that will make me snap a book closed faster than a character which defies the natural progression of emotional intelligence. I think this is why I have come to like the romance genera. It is so rich with emotional intelligence. The writers (the good ones, anyway) must dig deep to tell the story, one which is as old as time and yet newly born with each day’s rising sun. And there’s no faking it.
    Nina, finding herself blessed once again by the WW’s blog.

    Reply
  12. “…if you try to make characters act in a way that’s inconsistent with their nature, things fall apart.”
    Hello Loretta:
    Thank you for your second post. I am sorry for not being more clear.
    You did, however, answer my question and I agree. There’s nothing that will make me snap a book closed faster than a character which defies the natural progression of emotional intelligence. I think this is why I have come to like the romance genera. It is so rich with emotional intelligence. The writers (the good ones, anyway) must dig deep to tell the story, one which is as old as time and yet newly born with each day’s rising sun. And there’s no faking it.
    Nina, finding herself blessed once again by the WW’s blog.

    Reply
  13. Great post, Loretta. There’s much to be learned from the old Victorian masters. Though I’m still looking for the smoochy-parts in “Great Expectations.”
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  14. Great post, Loretta. There’s much to be learned from the old Victorian masters. Though I’m still looking for the smoochy-parts in “Great Expectations.”
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  15. Great post, Loretta. There’s much to be learned from the old Victorian masters. Though I’m still looking for the smoochy-parts in “Great Expectations.”
    Susan/Miranda

    Reply
  16. Susan/Miranda–OK, now you, too, have made me laugh and spit iced tea on my keyboard. Luckily, it’s about a hundred years old. But I’d better be careful from now on to put the tea down before I read your comments. My monitor is new.
    No, alas, no smoochies for the Victorians. They did death (something horrible, like from cholera or consumption) or murder instead. Grisly deaths and grisly murders were less “dirty” than smoochies. In a seminar on Gothic and Romantic Literature, the prof theorized that the blood-sucking vampire activities were the Victorian substitute for sex.

    Reply
  17. Susan/Miranda–OK, now you, too, have made me laugh and spit iced tea on my keyboard. Luckily, it’s about a hundred years old. But I’d better be careful from now on to put the tea down before I read your comments. My monitor is new.
    No, alas, no smoochies for the Victorians. They did death (something horrible, like from cholera or consumption) or murder instead. Grisly deaths and grisly murders were less “dirty” than smoochies. In a seminar on Gothic and Romantic Literature, the prof theorized that the blood-sucking vampire activities were the Victorian substitute for sex.

    Reply
  18. Susan/Miranda–OK, now you, too, have made me laugh and spit iced tea on my keyboard. Luckily, it’s about a hundred years old. But I’d better be careful from now on to put the tea down before I read your comments. My monitor is new.
    No, alas, no smoochies for the Victorians. They did death (something horrible, like from cholera or consumption) or murder instead. Grisly deaths and grisly murders were less “dirty” than smoochies. In a seminar on Gothic and Romantic Literature, the prof theorized that the blood-sucking vampire activities were the Victorian substitute for sex.

    Reply
  19. From Sherrie:
    “What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.”
    Ahhhhh, so true! I find that while I have a clear idea who my characters are when I start the book, they always grow and burgeon as I write, and as a result, it is often no longer logical for them to follow the path I have laid out for them. Sometimes they take a sharp right and go roaring down an unknown path with me screaming behind them, trailing red pens and ink cartridges while I stab frantically at my outline with my finger, loudly demanding they stick to the schedule.
    More often than not, my characters’ choices end up being better than my own.
    One time, I heard about a technique where you “interview” your character in order to learn more about them. So I took the icy and disdainful alpha hero of one of my stories and tried to interview him. All went well until I started prying into his personal life and childhood.
    At first he tried to distract me by using his considerable charm. When that didn’t work, he turned viciously polite and cut me to ribbons. I couldn’t believe what my fingers were typing. I had no idea where all his anger came from.
    I had to stop the interview and slink away with my tail between my legs. I found out first-hand what it felt like to be cut down by a man of his caliber. It was very useful and ended up as a scene between the hero and heroine, but it also jolted me into a new awareness of my hero.
    So, Loretta, tying this back to what you said above (“What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.”) I can readily agree with you.
    And bringing us back to the issue of sagging middles, I really like what Pat said: “… the more you know your characters, the more emotional impact those turning points take.” And if you have a turning point about every hundred pages, as Pat said, then “the middle holds up like a tent.” (Great way of putting it, Pat!)
    Sherrie
    http://www.holmesedit.com

    Reply
  20. From Sherrie:
    “What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.”
    Ahhhhh, so true! I find that while I have a clear idea who my characters are when I start the book, they always grow and burgeon as I write, and as a result, it is often no longer logical for them to follow the path I have laid out for them. Sometimes they take a sharp right and go roaring down an unknown path with me screaming behind them, trailing red pens and ink cartridges while I stab frantically at my outline with my finger, loudly demanding they stick to the schedule.
    More often than not, my characters’ choices end up being better than my own.
    One time, I heard about a technique where you “interview” your character in order to learn more about them. So I took the icy and disdainful alpha hero of one of my stories and tried to interview him. All went well until I started prying into his personal life and childhood.
    At first he tried to distract me by using his considerable charm. When that didn’t work, he turned viciously polite and cut me to ribbons. I couldn’t believe what my fingers were typing. I had no idea where all his anger came from.
    I had to stop the interview and slink away with my tail between my legs. I found out first-hand what it felt like to be cut down by a man of his caliber. It was very useful and ended up as a scene between the hero and heroine, but it also jolted me into a new awareness of my hero.
    So, Loretta, tying this back to what you said above (“What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.”) I can readily agree with you.
    And bringing us back to the issue of sagging middles, I really like what Pat said: “… the more you know your characters, the more emotional impact those turning points take.” And if you have a turning point about every hundred pages, as Pat said, then “the middle holds up like a tent.” (Great way of putting it, Pat!)
    Sherrie
    http://www.holmesedit.com

    Reply
  21. From Sherrie:
    “What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.”
    Ahhhhh, so true! I find that while I have a clear idea who my characters are when I start the book, they always grow and burgeon as I write, and as a result, it is often no longer logical for them to follow the path I have laid out for them. Sometimes they take a sharp right and go roaring down an unknown path with me screaming behind them, trailing red pens and ink cartridges while I stab frantically at my outline with my finger, loudly demanding they stick to the schedule.
    More often than not, my characters’ choices end up being better than my own.
    One time, I heard about a technique where you “interview” your character in order to learn more about them. So I took the icy and disdainful alpha hero of one of my stories and tried to interview him. All went well until I started prying into his personal life and childhood.
    At first he tried to distract me by using his considerable charm. When that didn’t work, he turned viciously polite and cut me to ribbons. I couldn’t believe what my fingers were typing. I had no idea where all his anger came from.
    I had to stop the interview and slink away with my tail between my legs. I found out first-hand what it felt like to be cut down by a man of his caliber. It was very useful and ended up as a scene between the hero and heroine, but it also jolted me into a new awareness of my hero.
    So, Loretta, tying this back to what you said above (“What they do, then, will depend not on the outline but on who they’ve turned out to be.”) I can readily agree with you.
    And bringing us back to the issue of sagging middles, I really like what Pat said: “… the more you know your characters, the more emotional impact those turning points take.” And if you have a turning point about every hundred pages, as Pat said, then “the middle holds up like a tent.” (Great way of putting it, Pat!)
    Sherrie
    http://www.holmesedit.com

    Reply
  22. Sherrie, sounds like you had an experience almost as bad as that of the poor author in Flann O’Brien’s AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS, who gets kidnapped by his own characters!

    Reply
  23. Sherrie, sounds like you had an experience almost as bad as that of the poor author in Flann O’Brien’s AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS, who gets kidnapped by his own characters!

    Reply
  24. Sherrie, sounds like you had an experience almost as bad as that of the poor author in Flann O’Brien’s AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS, who gets kidnapped by his own characters!

    Reply
  25. Hey Sherrie… could you interview my heroine, for me? I can’t get her to kiss my hero. She keeps reminding me I’m not writing a romance while I keep reminding her that she really does love him, else she wouldn’t have thrown her life away to save his neck so many times! But she just glares at me, pertinent chin flipped up, brown eyes glistening with defiance. All I want is one simple kiss.
    🙂

    Reply
  26. Hey Sherrie… could you interview my heroine, for me? I can’t get her to kiss my hero. She keeps reminding me I’m not writing a romance while I keep reminding her that she really does love him, else she wouldn’t have thrown her life away to save his neck so many times! But she just glares at me, pertinent chin flipped up, brown eyes glistening with defiance. All I want is one simple kiss.
    🙂

    Reply
  27. Hey Sherrie… could you interview my heroine, for me? I can’t get her to kiss my hero. She keeps reminding me I’m not writing a romance while I keep reminding her that she really does love him, else she wouldn’t have thrown her life away to save his neck so many times! But she just glares at me, pertinent chin flipped up, brown eyes glistening with defiance. All I want is one simple kiss.
    🙂

    Reply
  28. Tal, I can think of nothing I’d love more than to be kidnapped by one of my hero characters! (Well, maybe not the above icy dude–he intimidates me a little).
    Nina, once my hero has kidnapped me, he and I will have a little talk with your heroine and help her see the error of her ways.
    Then we can write a story about it and solve the issue of sagging middles!
    Sherrie

    Reply
  29. Tal, I can think of nothing I’d love more than to be kidnapped by one of my hero characters! (Well, maybe not the above icy dude–he intimidates me a little).
    Nina, once my hero has kidnapped me, he and I will have a little talk with your heroine and help her see the error of her ways.
    Then we can write a story about it and solve the issue of sagging middles!
    Sherrie

    Reply
  30. Tal, I can think of nothing I’d love more than to be kidnapped by one of my hero characters! (Well, maybe not the above icy dude–he intimidates me a little).
    Nina, once my hero has kidnapped me, he and I will have a little talk with your heroine and help her see the error of her ways.
    Then we can write a story about it and solve the issue of sagging middles!
    Sherrie

    Reply

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